August 13, 2022

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Sox struggling to reach 'next level' amid skid

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BOSTON — The rally was in motion on Saturday afternoon at Fenway Park, and Alex Verdugo looked like he was about to add some emphasis to it.

The left-handed hitter scorched one toward the first-base line at an exit velocity of 108.8 mph, per Statcast. You could envision it whipping through the infield and into the right-field corner for a double to tie a game in which the Red Sox had trailed by four runs only minutes earlier.

But the screaming liner with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning went right into first baseman Rowdy Tellez’s glove. Of course, Tellez. The player who has crushed the Red Sox numerous times with his bat over the years just happened to be standing in the exact spot Verdugo’s searing liner went. The out had an expected batting average of .650. It was the hardest-hit ball of the game by either team.

It was a symbolic moment in an eventual 9-4 loss to the Brewers for a team that is struggling mightily and is at a crossroads heading into Tuesday’s 6 p.m. ET Trade Deadline.

As Tellez snared all of Boston’s momentum, Xander Bogaerts, the team’s leader — the man who likely would have scored from first — hung his head in frustration. Verdugo put his hands over his helmet in disbelief.

That is the way it has been going for a team that is two games under .500 (50-52) for the first time since June 3.

That is the way it has been going for a team that is 2-7 with one game remaining on what was viewed as a critical homestand in terms of how the front office would assess the club heading into Tuesday’s Deadline.

That is the way it has been going for a team that has lost 13 of 16 and 17 of 22.

“Yeah, I mean, we put [together] some good at-bats. I think the whole day, we did a good job [offensively],” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “[Verdugo] hit that one, and we were close in the game.”

And then, almost predictably, the gap widened.

Lefty reliever Jake Diekman, who had been showing some encouraging signs of late, opened the eighth by hitting Milwaukee’s No. 8 hitter (Victor Caratini) and walking the No. 9 hitter (Tyrone Taylor). Then, there was a wild pitch that put two runners in scoring position.

This scenario just about never works out, and it didn’t in this case. The Brewers are in first place in the National League Central because they execute and capitalize on mistakes. They scored once in the eighth, three more times in the ninth and a sinking feeling had developed at Fenway.

“We hit a guy. We walked the next one,” Cora said. “Wild pitch. Just a lot of stuff happened there.”

There are two games left before the Trade Deadline. The Red Sox seemed almost 50-50 as buyers or sellers when the week started.

The pendulum is now clearly shifting in the direction of sell. Perhaps if the roster was healthier, a successful homestand would have ensued and the narrative would be different with the Deadline closing in. But there have also been breakdowns in execution and a lack of consistency from some key performers.

“We need to get to the next level,” Cora said. “It seems like we haven’t been able to do that throughout the season, let’s be honest. We take a few steps forward, and then a lot of steps back. We’ve been very inconsistent, especially in the middle of the game.”

Nobody on the Red Sox will be sad that Sunday is the last day of July. The club is 7-19 this month, and no starting pitcher has won a game since the calendar flipped.

Nick Pivetta, who was the team’s best starter from May 7-June 29, has given up four or more runs in four of his past five starts. The right-hander gritted out five innings on Saturday and gave up four runs on nine hits, including a two-run homer by former Boston teammate Hunter Renfroe.

“Obviously, I need to work on my curveball a little bit more, get that pitch down,” Pivetta said.

Add it to a laundry list of things the Red Sox are working on amid a funk they are desperately trying to escape.

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